Sunday, May 27, 2012

Evotour, part two. The Southwest Desert

Immediately after seeing the eclipse of the Sun, I headed to Petrified Forest National Park. Even though it was over 100 degrees, I still found it utterly captivating. This is a place that offers a wonderful way of looking into the evolutionary past.

The Petrified Forest today is desert, with only the skimpiest cover of shrubs and grasses, but over 200 million years ago, during the Triassic Period, it was a flooded forest dominated by Araucarioxylon arizonicum trees. The climate today is entirely different from what it was 200 million years ago. Entire petrified trunks are strewn over the ground, having eroded from the ancient sediments. Under wet, anaerobic conditions, the trunks decomposed slowly enough that silicate minerals diffused in and replaced the organic molecules, with the result that the trunks, which are now rocks, retain much of the original structure, including easily-visible wood grain. In the cross-sectional fractures, the ring structure of the wood can still be seen, though not in enough detail to study individual rings. Along with the silicon, minerals such as copper and iron have created astonishing colors. This is one of the best places to observe the effects of the processes of fossilization.

The presence of these fossilized tree trunks provides strong evidence for the long evolutionary history of the world. Creationists claim that petrified wood can be produced rapidly, and that the Petrified Forest could have been produced during a single Flood of Noah. They claim that this is just a Flood deposit. But all of the plant fossils in the Petrified Forest vicinity represent extinct forms of conifers, not just Araucarioxylon but also Woodworthia arizonica and Schilderia adamanica. Smaller plant fossils include clubmosses, ferns, cycads, and ginkgoes. Note that there are no modern conifers (such as pines) and no hardwood trees or flowers. How could Noah’s Flood waters have selectively picked out just conifers, clubmosses, ferns, cycads, and ginkgoes, and excluded all the hardwoods and flowering plants? The only reasonable explanation (without invoking a special miracle of which the Bible gives no hint) is that this deposit comes from a time in Earth history when hardwoods and flowers had not yet evolved.

There is a similar pattern in the animal fossils. Vertebrate fossils include crocodile-like phytosaurs, large Buettneria amphibians, and early dinosaurs. These deposits come from a time in Earth history when larger dinosaurs, mammals, and birds had not yet evolved. A Flood could not have picked out just the amphibians and small dinosaurs, and excluded all the large dinosaurs, mammals, and birds.

The next day I visited the Sonoran Desert. Most of this desert is behind fences and inaccessible from highways. But I managed to find a Maricopa County park south of Phoenix in which I could walk among the saguaros and other desert plants. Even though it was so hot that my video camera flashed a heat warning, I was utterly fascinated by this location. It is a showcase of evolutionary creativity. All of the plants were adapted to hot, dry desert conditions, but each of them in different ways. Most noticeable are the saguaros, which have spines (that keep animals from consuming their tissues to get water) and have a special kind of photosynthesis in which they store acid during the cool night and keep their pores closed during the day, when they manufacture sugar (this is known as CAM photosynthesis). But there are also the palo verde bushes. Palo verde means green stem, and these small trees have green stems rather than green leaves. There were also creosote bushes, which had small leaves, but the leaves gave off an unmistakable creosote scent. The volatile chemicals that create the scent actually provide heat stabilization to photosynthesis. Finally, there were black crusts on the soil surface, which are the resting phase of microscopic algae that come to life during rains and only during rains. The spring ephemeral wildflowers, which have adapted to the desert by growing like crazy for just a few brief weeks after the winter rains, were already gone. Evolutionary adaptations take many different forms, precisely because each group of organisms finds its own path of adaptation.

As a matter of fact, CAM photosynthesis has evolved many times, in different families of succulent plants. This is another fascinating evolutionary story. The enzymes involved in CAM did not evolve from scratch; they already existed and were used by these plants’ ancestors for a different function. Evolution borrowed them and repurposed them for this special kind of photosynthesis, and did so several different times in different parts of the world.

I apologize for the fact that two of the photographic images are on their sides, but Blogger insists on orienting them in that manner and there is no way I can change it. I saved the files in vertical orientation. Guess that's what you get for having a free blog from Google. I hope to post YouTube videos about the eclipse and the desert soon.

Maybe I stayed a little too long out in the Petrified Forest and the Sonoran Desert, because after I arrived in La Jolla to visit my sister, I experienced the temporary symptoms of recovery from heat prostration. But it was a fascinating exploration of evolution, one that I hope you will be able to experience someday yourselves.

Note: Someone posted a comment on a previous entry, but when I click on it, my computer goes into an unresponsive mode. I have not read the comment but I suspect that someone has inserted a virus. Beware!  Update: The problem was apparently a computer glitch caused by Google. The comment was not a virus.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Evotour 2012, part one. Eclipse of the Sun

I have begun a journey to California and back, during which I will be visiting sites of evolutionary interest. I will be making Darwin videos about these places, which I will post soon on my YouTube channel.

Evotourism is a new concept, which may someday draw attention among science-literate tourists the same way ecotourism now does. I am looking into the possibility of leading evotours, and my first step is to visit or revisit sites of evolutionary interest and make videos of them.

Until just three days ago, I was not planning to include the eclipse of the sun in my tour. Then I read that the eclipse would be seen clearly in New Mexico, and I knew I would be going through New Mexico as part of my trip. So I rearranged my schedule to be in Gallup, NM on May 19, to watch, photograph, and, if possible, make a video of the eclipse, which was to occur at 7:30 mountain daylight time.

I left my motel room about 6:00 and headed south on a state highway, expecting to easily find a place to pull off to the side of the road and set up my telescope and my camera tripod. This turned out to not be so easy to do. I wanted a clear view of the horizon, but there were few places from which I could do this. And almost the only side roads, off of the state highway, were private ranch roads with cattle guards. The residences did not look like the kinds of places that would welcome loiterers even outside the fence.

At last I found a side road of a side road with a church sign, and a little dirty spot to pull over. To my surprise, when I set up the telescope, I discovered the eclipse had already begun a little before 7:30. The disc of the moon was approaching from the lower right. I quickly set up my camera and took still photos and took some videos, which I tried to narrate despite the occasional cars whooshing down the country highway. For a perfect moment I saw the annular eclipse—the moon forming a perfect black disc centered in the sun. It was impossible to take photos or videos of the eclipse without the filter, and therefore nothing else was visible—until right at sunset, when the moon had nearly passed to the upper left, when a sun with a big bite taken out of it nestled down into piƱon branches.

What I narrated about was that humans used to think that gods or demons caused the sun to darken and the moon to turn to blood (eclipses) and the starts to fall from the sky (meteors). This is the language used in the scriptures we still revere. The scientific view of nature, starting with Copernicus and Galileo and other astronomers, and continuing with physics and chemistry and biology, and finally the evolutionary understanding of humans and even the human brain, has shown us that the universe is not full of demons but that we are a part of its natural laws. We are at home. I did not express this as clearly on the video, where I’d been caught unprepared, as I did in this essay. But it was good enough. I may post it on YouTube soon, except that I got the date wrong on the narration, on all the takes.

For all I could tell, the people in the convenience store and driving along the road had no idea that an eclipse was occurring. The few people I talked to had no interest. Either they attended the little fundamentalist church beside whose sign I stood, or else they were totally absorbed in their own pleasures or problems or projects. In the old days, eclipses disturbed people. Today, they should be sources of wonder. But it appears that the geocentric theory has not been replaced by the heliocentric theory as much as by the egocentric theory.

My next stop on the evotour is Petrified Forest. I’ll let you know about it.

Note: Someone posted a comment on a previous entry, but when I click on it, my computer goes into an unresponsive mode. I have not read the comment but I suspect that someone has inserted a virus. Beware! Update: The problem was apparently a computer glitch caused by Google. The comment was not a virus.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Evolution of the Republican Brain—In Oklahoma

This morning, at the commencement at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, the keynote speaker was Mr. Jerry Buchanan, a prominent Republican from Tulsa. During his speech, he made reference to “Obama bin Laden.” He then made a perfunctory apology, but due to his gestures (including a grin and putting his thumb to his mouth) I inferred that the apology was not sincere.

I have written recently (see entry for March 20) that the political leaders of Oklahoma act as if they are not really part of the United States. I was hoping that what I then wrote about was an isolated instance, but a pattern appears to be forming, in which Republicans consider Democrats to not be fellow Americans but to be outsiders, even enemies. Throughout human history, our species has drawn lines between insiders, whom we treat with altruism, and outsiders, whom we despise. We have steadily encompassed more and more people, and even other species and the Earth, into the “insider” group. But in Oklahoma it appears that this process is reversing. It hasn’t always been this way. Back when Republicans hated Bill Clinton, they never implied that he was a terrorist, or in other ways spewed the hatred that they now spew toward President Obama. Whether this is because the Republican Party has changed from being the party of right wing activism to being the party of personal animosity toward others, or whether it is because Obama is (part) black and Clinton is white, I cannot say.

And this is exactly what we would expect from the way the “Republican brain” works. This phrase is in the title of Chris Mooney’s new book. Mooney (author of such previous works as The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America) uses recent research into psychology to say that people whose brains have an intolerance of ambiguity tend to join the Republican Party. The process is quite simple. Some people’s brains make them believe that everything is either totally right or totally wrong; and that whatever they happen to believe is totally right; and that anyone who disagrees with them is therefore not only wrong but evil; and that they are right (or blessed by God) whenever they take actions against other people that would, in most circumstances, be considered wrong. That is, when such people are “standing up for their beliefs,” no amount of ridicule or insult or misinformation is too much to heap upon others, and God releases them from moral and legal obligations when they attack others. While this is a perfect description of Republicans, it also describes extreme liberals; however, there just aren’t enough extreme liberals to bother talking about them.

I believe that this was what was happening in the mind of the commencement speaker this morning. Perhaps he believes that he should extend the normal respect of shared citizenship to President Obama, but subconsciously his brain is telling him that the president is related conceptually to terrorism. And I believe that this is also why most of the audience thought it was funny.

I confronted the speaker about this afterward. The speaker had told the graduates that their words should be positive, to create a positive future for themselves and a positive environment for everyone. I told him that his words about “Obama bin Laden” were not positive, but were highly insulting. He agreed. He insisted that it was a Freudian slip. I asked him to write a letter of apology to President Obama, and he promised to do so. I went up to him again and told him that his apology makes a great deal of difference. And that is why I am telling you about it. I will probably never know whether he actually sends an apology, but for the record, he apologized.

It is the Freudian part that I am writing about. I actually believe that Jerry Buchanan just made a mistake. But associating people who disagree with them, especially President Obama, with evil comes naturally and subconsciously to Republicans, and it slips out even when they do not intend it to—even when they do not consciously believe it, or just when they think it is bad publicity to say it. And the laughter of the crowd tells me that Oklahoma is dangerously Red. Dangerous, because they can say all kinds of hostile and inflammatory things before they even realize what they are doing. Will actions follow words? History, even recent history, even recent American history, does not offer us complete assurance that we have nothing to worry about, especially since there are enough guns in Oklahoma to supply an army as large as that of some nations. As long as the Oklahoma House opens its sessions with creationist rants (see March 20) and the people of Oklahoma think that it is funny to associate the name of the president with terrorism, the ground is fertile for real trouble.

Evolution gave us mammalian brains that react instantly to perceived threats. However, evolution has more recently given us advanced human brains that can learn to choose altruism over animosity.

Note: Someone posted a comment on this entry, but when I click on it, my computer goes into an unresponsive mode. I have not read the comment but I suspect that someone has inserted a virus. Beware! Update: The problem was apparently a computer glitch caused by Google. The comment was not a virus.